{Virtual Book Club } Unconditional Parenting

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Today I’ll review Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn. It’s one of my favorite parenting books, and I’ll begin with this caveat: read it with a completely open mind. Kohn offers a complete paradigm shift, arguing against some of the seemingly reasonable things parents do every single day. You’ll get the most out of this book if you intentionally soak in all the information without prejudgments and form your opinions after you’re done.

Unconditional Parenting means loving kids for who they are, not what they do.

And good intentions are not enough; it is our children who must feel that we love them no matter what. Children who receive Unconditional Parenting grow up to accept themselves unconditionally.

Most of us don’t naturally practice Unconditional Parenting. More commonly, parents employ Conditional Parenting (loving kids for what they do) practices like rewards and punishments. In the book, Kohn details how both punishments and rewards chip away at unconditional love. Timeout, for example, is really a time out from love, when the child is isolated as a consequence. Kohn explains that yes, punishments seem to work, but “work to do what, and at what cost?” Punishments model the use of power and eventually lose effectiveness. They enrage the receiver, which distracts from the real issues. When parents focus on retribution, they no longer remain caring allies, and the relationship erodes. And since punishments teach obedience, not morality, they make kids more self-centered.

Rewards may seem like a gentle alternative, but according to Kohn, they are just the other side of punishment. Giving rewards for desired behavior is still motivated by control, and implies the lack of a reward when the behavior isn’t “good enough.” Rewards have been found to decrease motivation and, like punishments, lead to conditional self-acceptance.

After a detailed account of the problems with Conditional Parenting, Kohn outlines the 13 Principles of Unconditional Parenting. I have summarized them for you here:

Principles of Unconditional Parenting

Be Reflective

Look at your own parenting with a critical eye. Don’t be afraid to admit to yourself where you see weakness/conditional parenting.

Reconsider Your Requests

Be open to negotiation. This doesn’t weaken your role as the parent. You will still look at all situations with a wise eye and have the final say on what best for your child’s safety, development, etc.

Keep Your Eye on Your Long Term Goals

Set long terms goals for the kind of person you want your child to become, such as compassionate, or independent thinker. Consider critically whether your short-term discipline strategies work towards that.

Put the Relationship First

This is actually your end goal. Don’t forget that. Sure, we’ll need to do things that frustrate our kids, but we should remain mindful of the tradeoffs we make, and decide which ones are worth it.

Change How You See, Not Just How You Act

Unconditional Parenting does not simply mean that you react differently to behavior, it’s about seeing behavior through a different lens. This lens respects children and views them as inherently good.


When we respect children, they are more likely to respect us. Avoid doing things to your kids like downplaying their feelings, interrupting them, or ignoring them that you wouldn’t do to another adult. Refrain from telling kids how they feel; instead, ask them and investigate the reasons for their behavior.

Be Authentic

Be genuinely you and don’t get too caught up in trying to fill the Mother role. Yes–be a mom–but don’t stress it to the point of inauthenticity. Own up to your faults and apologize when you need to. These things don’t diminish your authority, they support it because your kids respect you when you show them your humanity.

Talk Less, Ask More

State the problem and then ask for information. Listen, listen, listen, and use that information to help you decide your next steps.

Keep Their Ages in Mind

Know what’s developmentally appropriate, and don’t expect something that is not.

Attribute Children to the Best Possible Motive Consistent with the Facts

Children (and adults for that matter) will rise to your expectations. Always, always expect the best.

Don’t Stick Your No’s in Unnecessarily

Our kids hear so, so many No’s. But, when we say it too much they stop listening. Only say no when you absolutely have to, and you’ll have kids who listen to your No’s when it’s important.

Don’t Be Rigid

Structure and predictability are essential for kids. But too much rigidity is unnecessary and can become a form of control. Make exceptions sometimes, like on special occasion.

Don’t Be in a Hurry

Simplify your schedule so that you’re not rushing from place to place. Parents are way more likely to use coercion under time pressure. Remember that it usually makes more sense to change the environment than to change the child.

I love this book because it truly challenges us to be the best parents we can be. Kohn offers a sophisticated model for parenting that deeply connects us in our relationships with our children. I do think his exemplification of less sophisticated parenting styles could be a bit less extreme. For example, he talks about a mother who yells and makes her kid leave the park because he “lets out a whoop” while jumping from the swing. I find that most parents do act in a fair way towards their children, while unknowingly engaging in subtler forms of control and conditional parenting. These parents would probably be more open to suggestions towards unconditional parenting, but with the examples Kohn provides, it’s easier to say, “Well that’s not me at all!” than to actually examine ourselves and look for areas of improvement. It’s also easier to write off the whole book, and lose the chance for so much learning and introspection.

Overall, Unconditional Parenting is a thought-provoking book with so much to teach us. Along with contrasting this parenting style to the today’s pervading practices in a way that promotes deep introspection, Alfie Kohn provides us with practical advice to becoming the parents we thought we could only dream of being.


Join us for next month’s book club selection, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, that we’ll review on May 24!

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